note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Susan Daniels
In the Lyric Stage Company’s evocative production of “The Glass Menagerie” family tensions simmer, then boil. Seething with private dramas and veiled desires, interactions within the household paint a landscape of dashed hopes and veiled dreams. And in stark contrast to its minimalist approach, the Elliot Norton Award (ENA) director Eric Engel, triumphs with a power house of sweeping emotions. Discarding the living room setting usually associated with the play, Engel has set the production according to its original concept -- in an alley in St. Louis. Instead of the genteelly frayed elegance of chairs lamps, and doilies, the play unfolds on and under the side of a black iron, multi-tiered fire escape, which includes a stairway and pass through into the family quarters.
Omitting most of the props and even the glass animal collection, Engel has guided this minimalist approach into the imagination of Tom, who as the Narrator, ushers the story through the tangles of tension, love, hope, and disenchantment -- a mix of emotions found in any family, dysfunctional or not.
Defined by Tennessee Williams as a memory play, the action develops with the recollections of Tom --- a stand-in for the playwright, who had spoken openly about the autobiographical connections. The plot glimpses into the Wingfield family’s struggle to survive -- financially and spiritually -- in 1939 St. Louis. While the ever present (even when absent) matriarch Amanda clings to her dignity and faded glories, son Tom, a poet in crushing surroundings, reluctantly serves as the family provider as his frail, gimpy sister, Laura, retreats from the world into the comfort of her little glass animals. Enter The Gentleman Caller, who unknowingly adds hope and disillusion to the mix, serving as the catalyst for broken dreams.
A hit at its 1945 Broadway debut, the first for the playwright, “Menagerie” quickly became an American classic and has been a significant role for many stage and screen actresses, including Elizabeth Ashley, considered the definitive interpreter of William’s heroines, who appeared in a memorable production several years ago at American Repertory Theatre.
Adding a second candle to the playing field, ENA winner Nancy E. Carroll as Amanda turns in a performance of grand Southern charm, wrapped in the brittle demeanor of fierce mother love.
ENA and IRNE award winner Vincent Ernest Siders as Tom brings a sensually rhythmic quality to his scenes, creating a dance-like feeling when interacting with Carroll. As an African-American, Siders has been cast in an unconventional manner, yet shortly into the play, color is no longer an issue. In its wake, a tender and fierce portrait of a son and brother who loves his family, though feels repelled by the reality of his situation.
Playing opposite this stellar cast, newcomer to the equity scene Lewis Wheeler adds another peg to his family’s theatrical lore as The Gentleman Caller, Jim O’Connor. The son of local theater luminaries, David Wheeler, artistic director of the Theatre Company of Boston, and celebrated actress Bronia Stefan Wheeler, Wheeler delicately and convincingly portrays the former high school basketball star, champion debater, and big man on campus, now stuck as a shipping clerk at a warehouse, despite his self-improvement classes.
Though practically fading into the background, the character of Laura is touchingly depicted by Emily Sophia Knapps, who brings a shattered resoluteness to the role.
Stark and cold, ENA winner Janie E. Howland’s set produces a visual and visceral contrast to the events heating up in the Wingfield home, while Scott Pinkney’s atmospheric lighting, Rafael Jaen’s era appropriate costuming and sound designer ENA winner Jeremy Wilson’s nostalgic musical interludes serve the production well.
One minor quibble. In the second act, the scene between Laura and The Gentleman Caller has them seated on the floor, downstage left. For viewers in the back of the theater, it is difficult to see anything from the neck down. And with any Williams’ play, especially one as compelling and engaging as this production, it is a crime to miss even one moment.
“The Glass Menagerie, through 2/5;
The Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon Street, Boston.
Tickets are $19 $43. For tickets, call 617-437-7172 or visit www.lyricstage.com.